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The Last River: The Tragic Race for Shangri-Laby Todd Balf
Great Falls of the Potomac, August 1975
Predawn, the Potomac River.
Boyhood friends Wick Walker and Tom McEwan, now in their late twenties, and a young tagalong, Dan Schnurrenberger, stumble around their island campsite gathering up gear. They don helmets and spray skirts, grab paddles, and furtively slip into the swift but familiar current. The plan is simple: Before the park service is up and about — the Virginia side of the Potomac is part of Great Falls National Park — before anyone is up and about, they will paddle upstream a mile and a half to the base of Great Falls, then climb and rope-haul their boats to an overlook where they can scout the crux move of the seventy-five-foot drop one last time.
Great Falls is a twisting, rock-jammed stretch of whitewater where the immense western river-sized volume of the Potomac abruptly plunges off the Piedmont Plateau to the coastal plains. Nobody has ever run the vertical falls. The conventional wisdom is that nobody will run the falls. As it is, some seven park visitors each year drown in the rapids. Most of them slip off the gorge's high cliffs and are swept into the fierce whirlpools at the bottom of the falls. The thrashing currents can hold a person for a long time. Some victims are never spat out.
And yet Walker and McEwan, hotshot local whitewater racers, have been toying with the idea of a run down Great Falls almost as long as they can remember. Day after day they'd train at O-Deck Rapids and look the short distance upstream to the pounding, mist-shrouded cascade. Could they? At some point the pair began to believe something fundamentally different from what a million or so residents in metro D.C. and every single boater on the Potomac believed — they could. Not only could they run it, but they'd show everyone that their endeavor wasn't the reckless act of thrill-seeking idiots but the work of shrewd, utterly rational individuals. After all, they weren't day campers out on a dare. Walker, fair-skinned and block-chester, was a decorated military officer stationed at nearby Fort Belvoir. McEwan, dark-complected and six-footer, was married, with a child on the way. They'd show that Great Falls was an objective that could be professionally trained and planned for, something they could study and know until the craziness had been wrung from it.
In the years preceding that Sunday in August, they put the falls under their peculiar microscope. As far as they knew, nobody had ever boated off a major falls. They mapped the river's holes and eddies and drops at a myriad of water levels, then they went out and played guinea pigs at nearby, presumably less sinister, waterfalls. From West Virginia to North Carolina, they boated off increasingly high drops and even swam into the thrashing maelstrom at their base.
In one episode McEwan didn't get flushed out for almost a minute. Part of what they were doing was river morphology — understanding the chaotic behavior of a river at its wildest. Part of it was survivalist training — keeping it together when every mental impulse screamed for hitting the panic button. Each experience added up to a kind of blueprint for what to do, or, more accurately, what not to do when boating off a vertical fall. By the time they scrambled up the cliffs above the first twenty-five-foot drop, the "Spout," they had a sense they'd done their homework, cracked the code. Moreover, they had a belief that they'd come to understand Great Falls (and, by extension, any other similarly monstrous and mythic river) for what it truly was — rocks and water, as Tom put it. What it WAS. Not what their fears or other people's fears told them it was. And what it was was runnable.
The river cascades seventy-five feet in two hundred yards and is defined by three distinct drops. They'd put in above the bottom falls and run that first. Then the middle and bottom together. Finally it is time to do the complete top-to-bottom run. The day is lightening and time is running out. Soon the park rangers will be wandering about. First sight of boaters atop the falls will no doubt cause a convulsive response involving a phalanx of pissed-off fire and rescue squads. Tom McEwan moves fast, but he's not rushing. He slides into the boat's cockpit, fastening the stretchy, girdlelike spray skirt around the lipped oval opening to seal him in — and water out. Then he peers ahead to a point where the river's course drops completely from sight, and launches his twelve-foot fiberglass boat into the abyss. McEwan, Walker, and Schnurrenberger run the upper rapids just as they drew it up. They ferry hard left at the first eight-foot drop, zigzag through the bouldery middle rapids, and then approach the Spout, the final cataclysmic drop. Miss the hard left move, and the current will pile-drive them into a massive hole studded with rocks and ledgy outcroppings. A boat can easily become vertically pinned in the subsurface rock pile. If the boater's hands are free, maybe he can pull his spray skirt and maybe he can swim out. Only a few years earlier McEwan had been in a similarly grim scenario in the Linville Gorge, when he'd managed to exit at the last moment by upthrusting his knees with such desperate force he emerged with the splintered deck of his boat hanging off his spray skirt. More likely the thundering whitewater simply pounds the life out of whoever is beneath it. There is little to no rescue option. You have to save yourself. In a minute, maybe a little more, it will all be over.
But nobody misses the move. The trio dig their paddles into the current with a hard right sweep stroke. The boats pivot — almost in midair, it seems — and skip across the lip of the falls. Then the world drops away and they're falling almost three stories. Exploding into the pile below, each disappears momentarily and then bursts free to the surface. A moment later they're safely tucked into an eddy. They don't whoop it up as though they've cheated death. Rather, there's the sense of satisfaction that they are up to the unknown. Utterly fit for it. Then they paddle away, not bothering to tell anybody about their feat for several years to come (and to this day they refuse to say which of them ran the falls first). This makes the tale of the run even better when it does finally surface. And then the mystique about it — and about them — grows. Tom and Wick become local legends.
But the Great Falls was a mere prelude, a training trip for a major whitewater expedition Walker and McEwan had planned for the Bhutanese Himalaya later the same year. After Bhutan the duo had in mind an even bigger, more audacious objective: a monstrous and largely obscure river in southeastern Tibet called the Yarlung Tsangpo. It appeared to have the largest drop of any river in the world. It traveled through a gorge that was one of the most remote places on the planet. According to a book Wick Walker had unearthed, there were reports (in the sacred texts of a particular monastery) of some seventy-five waterfalls in a virtually unexplored and fabled stretch of about twenty miles. The suggestion of a real-life Shangri-la in those same gorge depths captivated them. It was the Everest of rivers. Undone and unopposed. Of the few river runners who were familiar with it, almost all believed its volume, gradient, and remoteness made the Yarlung Tsangpo beyond the means of what humans could do in a boat. Maybe not surprisingly, Walker and McEwan weren't so sure.
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